French artist JR installation on US-Mexico border; Courtesy of the artist
French artist JR installation on US-Mexico border; Courtesy of the artist

Imagining the Border Wall

One could hardly imagine a president who has articulated a more blatantly anti-immigrant and racist position than Donald Trump. From his campaign comments about Mexicans as rapists and criminals and his chants “build the wall” to his Muslim travel ban and rescinding of DACA, Trump has been swept into the White House on a wave of anti-immigrant hysteria.

It’s not clear, however, how much of this tough talk is actually being implemented on the ground. The border wall is the preeminent symbol of Trump’s anti-immigrant platform, and yet nine months into his administration Trump has not garnered funding for the wall, and in his latest negotiation with the Democrats, he appears to have settled for repairing current fences rather than building a massive barrier that can be seen from space.


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US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, “Fiscal Year 2017 ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations Report,” PDF

The latest data on deportations suggest that in spite of Trump’s tough talk, he still deports fewer people than Obama did in his last year as president when Obama’s deportation machine began to slow down. Interior removals are up by about 16,000 from Trump’s inauguration until the end of September 2017, but overall deportation numbers are down. This is hardly the roundup of millions of immigrants Trump promised.

Comparing Trump’s first year in office to Obama’s eight-year tenure, Trump is deporting far fewer immigrants. In fiscal year 2017, which includes 4 months of Obama’s administration, a total of 226,000 immigrants were deported compared to an average of 387,000 in each year of Obama’s presidency (Chishti, Pierce, and Bolter 2017). Although Obama claimed to be targeting “criminals”, as does Trump, Obama actually deported a greater percentage of immigrants with no criminal convictions. Under Obama, from 2009-2015, 56 percent of all immigrants removed from the country had no criminal convictions, compared to only 44 percent under Trump (Young 2017). According to the Transaction Records Access Clearinghouse, even ICE detainers, known as immigration holds, which increased under Trump, are only half the level of March 2011 when they peaked under Obama (Transaction Records Access Clearinghouse 2017).

One possible explanation for the relatively low-levels of deportations is that it takes a while for a person who is arrested to be removed, and Trump is focusing more on interior than border enforcement. If this is true, then the high number of arrests now may lead to higher numbers of deportations in the future, although after a year this prediction has not been borne out. Another explanation for the relatively low-level of deportation is the spread of sanctuary jurisdictions that have thwarted local collaboration with ICE agents. Whatever the cause, Trump has been unable to put into effect anything close to his promise to deport 11 million immigrants. And given the logistical capabilities of the government, it is inconceivable that Trump will be able to create a massive deportation machine in four or eight years that could deport all undocumented immigrants.

In spite of these sobering statistics, Trump’s anti-immigration performance is not without real consequences for immigrants. Well-publicized ICE raids have terrorized immigrants and led many people to stay in their homes unless they absolutely must leave for work or school. ICE agents have swooped down on communities in their SUV’s in Memphis and posted themselves inside courthouses in Portland. In January 2017, ICE agents raided 98 7-Eleven stores across the country, but only 21 people were arrested. The press and immigrant activists have amplified these kinds of public enforcement activities by reporting on them and sharing videos and images on social media. It’s not that there were fewer people being rounded up and deported by Obama, but the mainstream press didn’t pay much attention. We live in an era of mass deportation and anti-immigrant hysteria, but this is not something that began with Trump.


Lumber 84 ad
Lumber 84 ad

Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric rather than his policies is what is novel. The actual border wall will likely never be built, but he has managed to create the idea of the wall, an idea that has seeped into popular cultural imagination. During Superbowl 2017, one of the most controversial advertisements featured Trump’s imagined Border Wall. The ad by Lumber 84 begins with a Mexican mother and her daughter leaving their town and journeying across the desert. They arrive at an imposing science-fiction version of a border wall that soars into the sky. Suddenly a door opens and the mother and daughter walk through. The ad cuts to a white construction worker in a pick-up, ostensibly the one who has just built the door in the wall. 

The ad was seen as so controversial that Fox made the producers edit out the last sequence where the mother and child confront the wall. Even though the ad portrays the immigrants in a sympathetic light, the presence of the wall with a door in it reinforces Trump’s argument for restrictive “legal” immigration. Lumber 84’s CEO Hardy Magerko, a staunch Trump supporter, commented, “we need to keep America safe… The wall, I think it represents to me, security. I like security” (Minutaglio 2017).

The imagery of the imposing wall, while seen by some as a critique of Trump, helps to magnify the terror felt by immigrants by allowing us to picture the wall. The fact that the immigrants depicted are a mother and young daughter ostensibly makes them more sympathetic than a single male worker, but the impact of the ad seems to feed the terrorizing of immigrants.

Alberto Morakis sculpture on Nogales, Mexico border fence.
Alberto Morakis sculpture on Nogales, Mexico border fence.

The existing border fence has been the site of many artistic interventions from Guillermo Gómez Peña’s performances in the 1980s to Alberto Morakis’ sculptures affixed to the border fence in Nogales, Mexico in the 2000s. More recently, the French artist JR mounted a monumental photograph of a smiling toddler, Kikito, peering over the border fence in Tecate, an hour southeast of San Diego. The photograph is of an actual toddler peering over his crib in his house that abuts the border fence on the Mexican side. In contrast to the 84 Lumber ad which magnifies the border wall, JR’s photograph makes the border fence seem small and inconsequential, something a toddler could easily broach.

Guillermo Gómez Peña and Emily Hicks’ border wedding, Border State Park, 1988 Courtesy of the artist
Guillermo Gómez Peña and Emily Hicks’ border wedding, Border State Park, 1988; Courtesy of the artist

JR posted a photograph of two Border Patrol agents staring up at the photograph on his Instagram, and the image went viral. In an interview in The New Yorker, JR shied away from seeing the piece as overtly political, but rather argued that he hopes it forces people to engage the meaning of the border and the wall on an intimate level (Schwartz 2017). As JR put it, “‘What is this kid thinking?’ It was really just a love message. No hate debate. I thought that was amazing, because when you’re working in a political conflict zone like that it’s always delicate.”

Just as in the Lumber 84 ad, the use of children to “humanize” the immigrant story is a gesture that seems to want to move beyond politics to some universal source of sympathy. But, as we know, the debate over immigrant children is anything but not political. Children are at the heart of the immigration debate over DACA because these young students represent the future, and therefore are seen as a threat to anti-immigrant zealots.

Trump’s latest gambit to push Congress to pass legislation legalizing DACA may just work, but the price Democrats will have to pay for this victory is to accept the idea of deserving and undeserving immigrants and to vote for increasing militarization of an already hyper-militarized border. The wall will not likely get built in anything remotely the proportions promised by Trump, or envisioned by the Lumber 84 ad, but the idea of the wall and the anti-immigrant fear-mongering will have long-lasting effects.

Photograph by Mani Albrecht; courtesy of US Customs and Border Protection Office of Public Affairs
Photograph by Mani Albrecht; courtesy of US Customs and Border Protection Office of Public Affairs

The eight 30-foot border wall prototypes built at an expense of 3.3 million dollars have also become the focus on artists and activists. Swiss-Icelandic artist Christoph Buchel created a non-profit named MAGA to advocate preserving the prototypes as Land Art, thereby turning these barriers into conceptual art (Walker 2013). Artful Activist in San Diego conceived of a more direct intervention, projecting pro-immigrant political messages onto the imposing border wall structures (Morrissey 2017). The projections included slogans like “refugees welcome here” along with the outline of the Statue of Liberty and a simple image of a ladder.

Artful Activist San Diego projection onto Border Wall prototype
Artful Activist San Diego projection onto Border Wall prototype

Even if Trump turns out to deport far fewer immigrants than Obama, he has managed to proliferate the image of the criminal immigrant and to legitimize far-right anti-immigrant xenophobia. It has now become a mainstream Republican position to push for significant reduction of legal immigration and to argue against birthright citizenship. The restrictionists have taken over the party.

The anti-immigrant hate that Trump legitimized has resonated on many different levels from the statehouse to the schoolyard. It is a tiger that will not easily be tamed, and it may just topple the teetering coalition of Republicans who see Trump as a vehicle for their agenda. If the DACA deal does finally erode Republican support and lead Trump to ruin, it will be thanks to the courageous Dreamers who dared to imagine a border without a wall. Whether the actual wall gets built or not, however, Trump has managed to create the illusion of a wall that will take generations to knock down.


Elliott Young is professor of Latin American and Borderlands history at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. He is the author of Alien Nation: Chinese Migration in the Americas, the Coolie Era to WWII, Catarino Garza’s Revolution on the Texas-Mexico Border, and co-editor of Continental Crossroads. He is currently working on a book on the history of migrant incarceration.


Works Cited

“84 Lumber Super Bowl Commercial - The Entire Journey.” 2017. YouTube. February 5, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nPo2B-vjZ28 .

Chishti, Muzaffar, Sarah Pierce, and Jessica Bolter. 2017. “The Obama Record on Deportations: Deporter in Chief or Not?” Migration Policy Institute. January 26, 2017. https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/obama-record-deportations-deporter-chief-or-not .

Minutaglio, Rose. 2017. “84 Lumber CEO Says Controversial Super Bowl Ad Was Not Pro-Immigration – and Trump’s Wall ‘Represents Security.’” People. February 26, 2017. https://people.com/human-interest/84-lumber-ceo-says-controversial-super-bowl-ad-was-not-pro-immigration-and-trumps-wall-represents-security/ .

Morrissey, Kate. 2017. “Border wall prototypes become canvas for light graffiti.” Los Angeles Times. November 22, 2017. http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-border-wall-project-20171122-story.html .

Schwartz, Alexandra. 2017. “The Artist JR Lifts a Mexican Child Over the Border Wall.” The New Yorker. September 11, 2017. https://www.newyorker.com/news/as-told-to/the-artist-jr-lifts-a-mexican-child-over-the-border-wall .

Transaction Records Access Clearinghouse. 2017. “Use of ICE Detainers: Obama vs. Trump.” trac.syr.edu. August 30, 2017. http://trac.syr.edu/whatsnew/email.170830.html.

US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “Fiscal Year 2017 ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations Report.” https://www.ice.gov/sites/default/files/documents/Report/2017/iceEndOfYearFY2017.pdf .

Walker, Michael. 2018. “ Is Donald Trump, Wall-Builder-in-Chief, a Conceptual Artist?” New York Times. January 3, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/03/arts/design/is-donald-trump-wall-builder-in-chief-a-conceptual-artist.html .

Young, Elliott. 2017. “The Hard Truths About Obama’s Deportation Priorities.” HuffPost. February 27, 2017. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/hard-truths-about-obamas-deportation-priorities_us_58b3c9e7e4b0658fc20f979e.